Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behavior. While you might understand what psychology is, many people are not quite so sure about what psychology does. What purpose does psychology serve? What are its goals?
Let’s take a closer look at the major goals of psychology, what psychologists strive to accomplish, and how psychology is used to solve real-world problems.
One of the first goals of psychology is simply to describe behavior. By describing the behavior of humans and other animals, we are better able to understand it and gain a better perspective on what is considered normal and abnormal. Psychology researchers utilize a range of research methods to help describe behavior including naturalistic observation, case studies, correlational studies, surveys, and self-report inventories.
As you might imagine, psychologists are also interested in explaining behavior in addition to merely describing it. Why do people do the things they do? What factors contribute to development, personality, social behavior, and mental health problems?
Throughout psychology’s history, many theories have emerged to help explain various aspects of human behavior. A few examples of such approaches including classical conditioning and attachment theories. Some theories focus on just a small aspect of human behavior (known as mini-theories) while others serve as all-encompassing theories designed to explain all of human psychology (known as grand theories).
Not surprisingly, another primary goal of psychology is to make predictions about how we think and act. Once we understand more about what happens and why it happens, we can use that information to make predictions about when, why, and how it might happen again in the future.
Successfully predicting behavior is also one of the best ways to know if we understand the underlying causes of our actions. Prediction can also allow psychologists to make guesses about human behavior without necessarily understanding the mechanisms underlying the phenomena. For example, if researchers notice that scores on a particular aptitude test can be used to predict high school dropout rates, that information can then be used to estimate how many students in a particular group might drop out of school each year.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, psychology strives to change, influence, or control behavior to make constructive and lasting changes in people’s lives. In our previous example, researchers might take what they know about the link between scores on an aptitude test and dropout rates and use the information to develop programs designed to help students stay in school. From treating mental illness to enhancing human well-being, changing human behavior is a huge focus of psychology.
So as you have learned, the four primary goals of psychology are to describe, explain, predict, and change behavior. In many ways, these objectives are similar to the kinds of things you probably do every day as you interact with others.
When dealing with a child, for example, you might ask questions like “What is he doing?” (describing), “Why is he doing that?” (explaining), “What would happen if I responded in this way?” (predicting), and “What can I do to get him to stop doing that?” (changing).
Psychologists and other social scientists ask many of the same types of questions. The big difference is that psychologists utilize the scientific method to test rigorously and systematically understand both human and animal behavior.